Archive Sections: letters | music | index | features | photos | arts/lit | satire Find Iranian singles today!


Some do's and don'ts
Political culture and obstacles to democracy in Iran

By Masoud Kazemzadeh
June 30, 2003
The Iranian

Democracy is a relatively new system of government. Except for the brief existence of (partial) democracy in several Greek city-states some 2,400 years ago, there has been no democracy anywhere until the 18th century. About 2,500 years ago, the Persian Empire and its able founder Cyrus the Great introduced the notion of liberties in the ancient world, including full religious freedom. The rise of Christianity in the 3rd century Roman empire destroyed religious tolerance for non-Christians and dissident Christian sects. Many dissident Christians had to escape persecution and found refuge in tolerant Persia.[1]

The rise of democracy can be traced to the process of Enlightenment and the undermining of the absolutist ideas and monarchies in Europe in the past 300 years. Democracy and freedom require many things. A system of government in which the people freely and periodically elect the leaders is of prime significance. To the extent that there are un-elected political institutions in a system, to that extent that system is un-democratic.

Liberal democracy is a system in which the people vote in free elections to fill the top positions in legislative and executive branches, while the rights of those holding a minority perspective is protected. There are mores, ethos, and other values among the population which sustain democracy and freedom.

In other words, there have been many instances of a democratic system having been established, but the democratic system was not able to consolidate. Another factor in the rise and consolidation of democracy is the existence of democratic parties and leaders. In this article, I intend to discuss some of these factors in regard to Iran with the goal of helping increase the prospects of democratization.

One of the factors which functions as a foundation for the rise and consolidation of democracy is the relationship between the people and the leadership. I see two main ethos: (1) absolutism and (2) pluralism. Absolutist ethos are based on blind obedience and the concomitant use of force to repress those who dissent. Pluralist ethos are based on human reason, relativity of truth, and the acceptance of diversity of perspectives.

When people are socialized to blindly follow the leadership, the people are socialized to blindly follow Leader X. Sooner or later Leader X makes mistakes. The existence and prevalence of the ethos of blind obedience gives rise to absolutist challengers to Leader X. The opponent of Leader X, called Leader Y, claims Leader X had it all wrong. If only people blindly followed him, then everything would be perfect. This is how in much of the world one king, or religious leader, replaced incumbent dictatorial leader in the past two thousand years.

In the past 300 years, along with the rise of capitalism and modernity, there have been the rise of the Enlightenment thought and liberalism (e.g., John Locke, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill) in Europe. The Enlightenment period in Europe challenge the dominant Christian values.

In this article, I use the story of Abraham to show how this story has served as a foundation of blind obedience for the past 2000 years, justifying absolutist systems of governance in Europe and the Middle East.

In the Old Testament, there is the story of Abraham. Abraham could not have a child, so God gave Abraham a son. The son's name was Isaac. In the story to test the faith and fidelity of Abraham, God tells him to cut the throat of his son Isaac. Then Abraham places a knife on his son's throat to cut it. At the last second, an angle stops him and presents a ram instead. The story in Islam is the same except it is Abraham's other son, Ishmael, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice.

This story from the Jewish religion has been placed at the center of Islam. Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All the pilgrims have to go through and reenact step by step what Abraham had done. The pilgrims walk around the Ka'bah (the House of Abraham) and then have to cut the throat of a sheep in the manner Abraham had to cut the throat of his son.

There are two important questions which have significant impact on political culture of those who have been socialized with the story of Abraham: What is the goal (or purpose) of the story of Abraham? And, who benefits from propagating the story of Abraham?

Initially those who wrote these stories (or myths) were the Jewish rabbis.[2] This story was so useful and powerful a tool for socializing the masses, both Christianity and Islam adopted it as well. Islam raised this story to a central socializing ritual as one of the five pillars of Islam.

Those who wrote this story had a purpose. The story says individuals confront situations they do not understand. They have to blindly obey those in the positions of power (religious, political). Individuals may not understand the reasons why they are told to go to war and sacrifice their lives. This story says one should suspend his/her reason, love of children and blindly obey those in authority. To question is to doubt; to doubt is to be what Islam calls "moshrek." So, when a government orders fathers to send their sons to wars, fathers would have a hard time questioning or objecting to the authority.

Abraham could have asked God for an explanation. If God could not give Abraham a good reason why he should cut the throat of his son then a rational person would disobey a bad order, but here the goal of the story is to socialize people not to question those in authority.

After 2000 years, leaders still find this story so useful they continue to socialize the children with this story. Both kings and religious leaders claim God has appointed them to rule over his flock, so the authority of God is transferred to them, and they constitute the authority on Earth.

Dictatorial leaders want their supporters to blindly obey them. In Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah, Ruhollah Khomeini, Ali Khamanehi, and Masoud Rajavi, asked their supporters to obey them blindly and not to question their authority. The Shah's slogan was: "Khoda, Shah, Mihan," [God, the King, Country]. The slogan of Khomeini's supporters was: "Hezb Faghat Hezbollah, Rahbar Faghat Ruhollah," [the Sole party is Hezbollah, the Sole Leader is Ruhollah]. The slogan of the supporters of Rajavi is: "Iran Rajavi, Rajavi Iran."

Mohammad Reza Shah regarded himself as the "the Shadow of God on Earth," and publicly claimed he regularly received messages from the Hidden Shia Imam and his life was saved numerous times by the Shia Imams.[3]

Khomeini's notion of rule is called "Velayat Faghih" [the sovereignty of the Shia Clerics], which later was called "Velayat Motlagh Faghih," [absolute rule of Shia Cleric] is based on Khomeini's argument God has created all things and thus is the sovereign over all things; God transferred his sovereignty to the Prophet Mohammad, after him to the Shia Imams, and during the absence of the 12th Imam, sovereignty is exercised by the Shia clerics.

Rajavi, the absolute leader of the People'e Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI), is called by its organ, the equivalent to Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Prophet Mohammad, Imam Ali, and Imam Hussein combined. Mr. Rajavi has declared in Islam the role of leadership "nobovat" [prophethood] is one of the three main principles of Islam, and he regards himself to be this leader.[4]

Let's summarize the answer to our two questions. The purpose of the story of Abraham is blind obedience is good and of divine nature; questioning and skepticism are bad. Follow the leader and do not question the wisdom of the leader. The answer to the second question is that those dictatorial leaders who do not have reason and logic on their side benefit from this story. The story of Abraham is embraced not only by those in power, but also by those totalitarian leaders who want to replace the incumbent form of dictatorship with their form of dictatorship.

Absolute dictatorship and blind obedience -- as well as absolute truths and absolute morality -- are values which go together. The story of Abraham is not the only major story which teaches blind obedience. The theme of blind obedience runs through many stories in Abrahamic religions, such as the stories of Adam and Eve and the killing of Prophet Lot's wife. In the story of Adam and Eve, God forbids them to eat from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil."

In exchange for ignorance, God provides Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden where they do not have to work. In this story, violating God's command and seeking knowledge is severely punished. In the story of Lot's wife, when God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he orders Lot, his wife and his daughters not to look at the destruction. When Lot's wife disobeys God's command and takes a mere peak, God kills her by turning her into a pillar of salt. In the Quran 4:34, God tells men to beat up their wives if they [wives] disobey them [husbands].

What sort of ethos are compatible with freedom and democracy? In other words, what sort of ethos help the establishment and consolidation of democracy? Freedom is for those who think differently. Freedom is the ability to say and write something which those in power do not like to hear.[5] Freedom rests on the foundation of doubt and skepticism.

We are seldom certain of what the truth is; therefore, we should allow all perspectives to be heard. Progress is achieved when someone says things which have not been said before. Our knowledge is relative. We continuously learn more and discard what we find out was inaccurate. There are very few things which are absolutely true. It is not easy for us to know what the absolute truth is. We all have to use our judgement to evaluate what we are told. We have to use reason, logic, and evidence before we accept a view and agree to implement it.

Democracy means the particular person in power is there temporarily until the people change him/her with another person. Democracy is a system in which power is ultimately in the hands of the people. In a democracy, there is no leadership-for-life such as a monarch, Vali Faghih, or President-for-life. Some have argued that one can have democracy co-exit with un- elected institutions. One example is the US Supreme Court, and another is the institution of monarchy in European democracies.

In a liberal democracy, an institution like the US Supreme Court, may be created to check what the framers of their constitution feared might be "tyranny of the majority." The US Supreme Court is designed to be able to protect the rights of the minorities from the tyranny of the majority. To make certain that the Supreme Court itself would not become a tyrannical institution, many safeguards have been put in place. The elected president nominates and the elected Senate confirms the members. The number of the justices in the Supreme Court is determined by the President and confirmed by the Senate. And the people can, with super- majority rule, add constitutional amendments to reverse decisions of the Supreme Court. Thus, the US Supreme Court is designed to protect the rights of dissenting minorities from the tyranny of the majority, while making certain that the court itself would not become a dictatorial institution.

The example of constitutional monarchies is of an entirely different kind. First and foremost, Iranian Pahlavist monarchists, unlike their European counterparts, have a horrendous history of brutal dictatorship. Therefore, although one may not fear the Windsors in Britain to impose their brutal dictatorship, one has to be terribly naive not to fear the restoration of the unrepentant Iranian monarchists. The constitutional monarchies in Europe are, by and large, the remnants of the obsolete historical legacies that hold little actual political influence, if any.

Democracy is not a perfect system of government; there is no such thing as perfect system of government. All human beings have made mistakes and will make mistakes in the future. There is no panacea to all social ills. We can only muddle through. Through trial and error, leaders and followers alike gradually learn what works and what does not. As situations and circumstances change, the older solutions become useless, and the process of finding better solutions starts again. We can and should try to make our situation better. We cannot bring about absolute harmony and absolute solutions.

If we want to see freedom and democracy in Iran, we should move away from blind obedience, and from those who promote un-elected leaders (IRI, monarchy, PMOI).

This is not to say we are not absolutely certain of anything. The absolute relativism of the post-modernists is wrong. We do know the earth is not flat. We do know willful murder of an innocent five year old is wrong and immoral. Not all explanations are equally valid. There are good and bad explanations. However, the criteria for judging is our mind, our rationality, our science, and our logic.

A bit of skepticism is good; a whole lot of reason is imperative. In order to increase the prospects of democracy and freedom, we, the educated middle class Iranians inside Iran and outside Iran, have a major role to play: we should promote pluralistic values and parties, and counter totalitarian values and parties.

There is, of course, a need for leadership and political parties for the transition to democracy. The prospects of democracy increases when the institutions of civil society become stronger. Political parties (along with free press, labor unions, professional associations) are among the most important of such institutions.

Democratic leadership is very different from dictatorial leadership. Democratic leadership is open to criticism. Dictatorial leadership closes off avenues of criticism. Democratic leadership is open to a plurality of views, and there is a real competition for leadership positions at all levels. A dictatorial leader selects and promotes those who are sycophants.

Our long and tortured history is full of one dictatorial group or person opposing another dictatorial ruler. If we are to break this cycle of one dictator replacing another dictator, we need to change the ethos and values which give rise to dictatorial and totalitarian leadership and sheep- like supporters. We have to learn to stand up for the rights of those with whom we disagree.

We have to stand up to all dictatorial groups and leaders (ruling fundamentalist regime, as well as to monarchists, Mojahedin, Stalinists). This means we have to be willing to pay the price of dissent. Of course, our people have paid dearly in the past 100 years in resisting the brutal dictatorships of monarchists and the fundamentalists. The larger the number of individuals who are willing to stand up to authoritarian persons, the lower the cost to each individual and the higher the likelihood of success.

Democracy is not replacing one un-elected leader whom one hates with one un-elected leader whom one likes. Democracy presupposes freedom for all parties and individuals to freely compete for all positions of power. Freedom of expression presupposes all individuals are allowed to express their opinions unhindered. It is the people who, after hearing and listening to all sides, may vote for any one they want, and change their views in a later election.

Blind obedience is the enemy of free thought and reason. Blind obedience to any leader is supporting a dictatorial system. The ideology of blind obedience is not only promoted by the incumbent dictatorship (Velayat Motlagh Faghih), but also by some in the opposition such as the Mojahedin, and the monarchists (the slogan of some of whom is "Iran bedon-e Shah hargez").

Those groups such as monarchists, who advocate a leadership that is for-life, would create an institution that by its very nature become independent of the will of the majority. Liberalism's mantra "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the basis of the liberal solution of checks and balances and limited terms of office. The institution of monarchy, by its very nature, is predisposed to dictatorship. As a friend once quipped, monarchy is like malaria. The Europeans have found ways to control it. But if one does not have it, it is unwise to get it and then try to control its harm.

The acceptance of plurality of views is a pre-requirement of democracy. Democracy is based on the agreement that political differences be resolved peacefully and through going to the people for their votes. This requires respect for the RIGHT of others to hold opposing viewpoints and ideologies. Having as part of one's cultural ethos, stories, and rituals which socialize the people to have blind obedience have to be challenged.

The three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- share many values which have not produced democracy in any country in which its clerics have assumed power. Democracy has emerged only in those polities in which there has been a separation of religion and the state. Many competing interpretations of Abrahamic faiths have emerged. One particular interpretation, usually referred to as fundamentalist variety, hold views most hostile to personal liberties and pluralist democracy.

The fundamentalists in all the Abrahamic religions maintain morality is anchored in absolutes of right and wrong. These absolutes are demarcated in the holy books. The Ten Commandments, or the list of sins [gonah] and righteous deeds [savab], for example, tell the people what is moral and what is immoral. Therefore, punishments and rewards are decided upon through divine laws which the fundamentalists intend to make state laws.

In order to have freedom and democracy, we need to have several preconditions. It is imperative to have separation of religion and state. Moreover, we have to socialize our people to develop independent critical thinking abilities and avoid blind obedience. We have to begin practicing pluralism, tolerance, and skepticism. Cultures are not static; they change and evolve. We human beings determine our own destiny. There is no reason to remain bogged down in authoritarian political systems.

It appears to me we are living through a major transformation of human consciousness. The economic structures of human existence have moved from one which encouraged conformity and blind obedience to a new and dynamic socioeconomic system which beautifully rewards human creativity and terribly punishes backwardness. With the transition to the post-industrial information age, the gap between scientific modern societies and pre-scientific traditional societies will widen. Those individuals and societies which adopt scientific, open, critical, inquisitive mind sets and cultures will prosper. Those individuals and societies which adopt closed, traditional, superstitious, backward authoritarian mind sets and cultures will become poorer and poorer. Quoting Rosa Gomez Dierks, our era is the "Survival of the Smartest."[6] If Iran is to become free, democratic, modern, and economically prosperous, the ethos of blind obedience has to be replaced with the ethos of critical free debate.

A culture's heritage may include contradictory ethos and values: some aspects of the culture may promote blind obedience, while other aspects may promote pluralism. Our culture includes icons such as the 10th century poet Ferdowsi whose heroic stories and myths articulated a secular Iranian nationalism for a millennia, and Khayyam whose existentialist poems are based on doubt and skepticism.

These aspects of Iranian culture are secular, nationalist and thus undermine the monopoly of Islam as the sole determinant of culture for Iranians. That explains why despite much efforts, the fundamentalist regime in Iran has been unable to uproot the pre-Islamic celebrations like Nourooz [Iranian New Year], Chaharshanbeh Souri [Festival of Fire during the last Wednesday of the year], Mehregan [Autumn Celebration], and Shab-e Yalda [celebration of the longest night of the year].

Moreover, we have been able to produce several major democratic movements in the past one hundred years. The constitutional revolution of 1905 produced the democratic Constitution of 1906. The democratic, pluralist, and modernist Iran National Front, under the able leadership of Dr.

Mossadegh, became the government between April 1951 and August 1953. The National Front government was overthrown by a coalition of reactionary forces which included the Shah and high ranking Shia clerics and was organized and led by the CIA. With the bankruptcy of fundamentalist rule in Iran, the people are searching for ways to bring a transition to democracy.

In addition, we are fortunate that our country possesses secular, democratic parties which could lead us towards democracy. The democratic opposition is comprised of groups that advocate civil liberties, pluralist democracy, rule of law, separation of religion and the state, a republican form of government, and nationalism.

They include political parties such as the Iran National Front [Jebhe Melli Iran], Iran Nation Party [Hezb Mellat Iran], Glorious Frontiers Party [Hezb Marz Por Gohar], Popular Republicans of Iran [Jomhurikhahan Melli Iran], Iran Futurist Party [Hezb Ayande Negar], and groups such as Nationalist Association of University Students and Graduates, the Writers' Association.[7]

The existence of secular cultural icons, pre-Islamic cultural practices, a history of secular democratic parties and politics, and the prominence of secular parties and groups in present-day Iran increase the likelihood of a transition to secular democracy in Iran. A discussion on what ethos increases the possibilities of democratization and what ethos decreases those possibilities, could make this transition more likely and more smooth.


Masoud Kazemzadeh, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Utah Valley State College.


[1] Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 7th edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2002), 19-21. Goldschmidt writes: "Many foreign scholars were attracted to Persia, a tolerant kingdom in which Nestorian Christians, Jews, and Buddhists could worship and proselytize freely. Driven from a bigoted Byzantine Empire in the fifth century, Nestorian savants found refuge at the legendary Persian academy of Jundishapur, a center for the preservation of Hellenistic culture -- indeed, the humanistic heritage of the whole ancient world. Scholars and students came form all parts of Europe and Asia to teach and study there, unhindered by racial prejudice, religious dogma, or political restrictions." In the 4th and 5th centuries the Roman Empire had declared Monophysites (known as Copts in Egypt, and as Jacobites in Syria), Arians and Nestorians as heretics and were suppressed sometimes very brutally.

[2] I use the term "story" which is more neutral than the term "myth." Many scientists believe that many stories in the Old Testament are myth. For example, see: Teresa Watanabe, "Doubting the Story of Exodus," in Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2001.

[3] See the Shah's own words in his interview with Oriana Fallaci in Oriana Fallaci, Interview with History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), 267-269.

[4] On the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran [PMOI] see: Ervand Abrahamian, The Iranian Mojahedin, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Peter Waldman, "Fading Force: Anti-Iran Guerrillas Lose Disciples but Gain Friends in Washington," in Wall Street Journal, October 4, 1994; Masoud Kazemzadeh, Islamic Fundamentalism, Feminism, and Gender Inequality in Iran Under Khomeini, (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002). The PMOI's website is:

[5] My discussion on freedom is based on John Stuart Mill, "On Liberty."

[6] Rosa Gomez Dierks, Introduction to Globalization: Political and Economic Perspectives for the New Century (Chicago: Burnham Inc., Publishers, 2001).

[7] Iran National Front is the largest and oldest secular pro-democracy organization in Iran. INF operates both inside and outside Iran: and Glorious Frontiers Party is new nationalist party operating both inside and outside Iran: The Popular Republicans of Iran is a secular democratic party: Iran Futurist Party operates outside Iran: // Melliun includes liberal democrats exiled in Europe: This group includes several pro-democracy university student groups operating inside Iran: The main Iranian human rights group, which operates outside Iran: National Democratic Front of Iran is a left-of-center democratic socialist party, operating in exile: The Nationalist-Religious Alliance operates inside Iran and includes many older activists (who left the Iran Liberation Movement) and some younger activists. They are a liberal Islamist group. See:

* Send this page to your friends

For letters section
To Masoud Kazemzadeh

* Advertising
* Support
* Reproduction
* Write for
* Editorial policy



Book of the day

The Future of Freedom
Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad
By Fareed Zakaria

Copyright 1995-2013, Iranian LLC.   |    User Agreement and Privacy Policy   |    Rights and Permissions